National Geographic : 2016 Oct
128 national geographic • October 2016 punctuate words, much like a conductor in front of a symphony. So he was able to poignantly por- tray a slave who would face severe punishment for attempting to learn the alphabet—and then break character to stand erect and deliver a rous- ing history lesson. It was a hit with tourists, but it made Ellis a pariah in Williamsburg ’s black community. “It was very, very, very controversial,” says Ellis. “Those first two or three years were very, very difficult years. I mean, when you have black employees who come to see what you’re doing, and they turn around and walk away, and you have people walking up to you and, when they see you in costume and they see you talking, they start whistling ‘Dixie,’ it can get hurtful.” His father never came to see his work as a slave interpreter. “In the end I think he understood that I was not just giving us back our history, I was giving people back the dignity they deserve in their history. The dignity,” he says, repeating the word for emphasis. His father did not live to see the museum, but Ellis keeps him in mind when thinking about its goals. “ You have to convince some people of the importance of this work. It helps me understand that we have to work hard and work carefully to bring people along.” Ellis grew up in Williamsburg, a former capital of Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg, the sprawling living history museum where actors wear period costume, is the center of modern-day civic life for the city’s residents. Yet when Ellis was a boy, he was never allowed to visit. One day he asked his father why, and the elder Ellis shot back: “Be- cause that’s something that points to slavery, and that’s something we don’t need to know about.” More than a decade later, Ellis was teach- ing theater history at Hampton University in Virginia when a representative from Colonial Williamsburg visited the campus looking for ac- tors to play the parts of slaves. Telling the story, Ellis rolls his eyes. “ You don’t go to a predomi- nantly black college and make a statement like that unless your cause is just or you’re ‘touched,’ as my grandmother used to say,” he explains. “He said he wanted to begin talking about the other half of the population in Williamsburg during the 18th century, and he wanted us to help him do that.” That surprised Ellis, who didn’t know that half the population had been black. He devel- oped what came to be called the Other Half Tour—a two-hour trek through the site viewing life from the perspective of slaves. Black people had always worked in costume at Williamsburg, as blacksmiths, scullery maids, bookbinders, and carpenters, but they were si- lent. Ellis introduced a new paradigm: Slave interpreters would describe in scholarly detail how they worked, lived, found fleeting dignity in private rituals, and endured a life of bondage and brutality. Ellis is a trained actor with a voice like cognac and a way of using his whole body to 16TH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH SHARDS Civil rights activist Joan Mulholland found the shattered glass in a street gutter after white supremacists bombed the Birmingham, Alabama, sanctuary in 1963, killing four black girls. For years Mulholland kept a piece of the stained glass in her coin purse as a reminder of the tragedy and the need for courage in the face of hate. GIFT FROM THE TRUMPAUER-MULHOLLAND COLLECTION 1990 To develop a plan, the Smithsonian sets up the National African-American Museum Project. 1994 Senator Jesse Helms kills Lewis’s bill: “Every other minority will give thought to asking the taxpayers to pony up for a special museum for them.” 2001 Congressman J. C . Watts, Jr., and Senator Sam Brownback, both Republicans, join Lewis, a Democrat, to help push the legislation. Watts, an African American, had worked with Lewis before. Brownback says the idea to support a museum came to him in church as “divine intervention.” 2003 President George W. Bush signs legislation to establish the museum. 2006 A site near the Washington Monument is selected. 2008 The museum begins col- lecting “African-American treasures” across the U.S . 2012 At the groundbreaking President Barack Obama says the museum “should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly.” 2016 The National Museum of African American History and Culture moves into its striking new building.